WASHINGTON – For all the controversy, immigration legislation is moving steadily through the Senate, shielded by a bipartisan coalition durable enough to defeat crippling amendments, shake off political warning shots and even recover from an occasional stumble.
Critics concede as much. Asked on Friday whether the bill was headed for passage, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., replied without hesitation: “I think it is.”
The legislation’s supporters established their command at the outset. On the day after President Bush’s prime-time speech calling for a “comprehensive approach” to immigration, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., sought to make all other provisions of the bill dependent on prior certification that U.S. borders were secure.
Anything less would mean a “a wink and a nod one more time” to illegal immigrants, Isakson said, challenging Bush’s claim that securing the borders required a guest worker program and other steps in addition to tougher enforcement.
Isakson’s proposal failed on a vote of 55-40, turned back by 36 Democrats, 18 Republicans and one independent.
As it happened, the next challenge came from the left when Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., sought to eliminate a new guest worker program. The party breakdown shifted, but not the result. His bid failed, 69-28; this time, Republicans took the lead. Forty-seven Republicans opposed it, along with 21 Democrats and one independent.
The pattern held throughout the week, perhaps most significantly when Sen. David Vitter, R-La., tried to kill proposals to give illegal immigrants a shot at citizenship. His effort failed, 66-33, with 41 Democrats out front, joined by 24 Republicans and one independent.
If Bush played a role in the maneuvering – Republican said his Monday night speech had solidified some GOP votes – Senate leaders did likewise.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had bickered for weeks, not so much over the bill’s contents as a procedure for debating it. They hatched a classic Senate compromise that freed the bill from gridlock but resulted in no discernible change to the legislation.
Reid agreed to step aside so conservative critics could have 20 or so chances at remaking the bill, knowing that would expose some Democrats to politically difficult votes but that most amendments ultimately would fail.
Frist, having satisfied GOP colleagues that they would have a fair chance to affect the legislation, said he was prepared to support an eventual effort to cut off debate on a bill many Republicans oppose. And Frist told reporters on Friday he has not decided how he will vote.
Not surprisingly, politics poked through. The two leaders parted company on the first key vote when Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership voted in favor of Isakson’s amendment; Reid opposed it.
Reid quickly taunted the White House.
“The president needs to talk to his own leaders here if he wants comprehensive immigration reform,” Reid jabbed. “We’ve got a lot of tough votes coming up.”
Frist had a ready reply. “Border security first, foremost. We’ve got to do it as part of a comprehensive plan,” he said.
It was a remark that reflected his attempt to assure passage of legislation without offending conservatives whose support he will seek should he run for the White House in 2008.
Democrats got a drubbing when Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., succeeded in passing an amendment that declared English the national language.
Reid called it racist. Republicans called for an apology – after pointing out that 11 members Democrats voted for the idea.
Ironically, the most emotional debate pitted Republican against Republican, and came after Vitter repeatedly described the bill as conferring amnesty on illegal immigrants.
“This is not amnesty, so let’s get the terms right,” countered Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. “Come on. Let’s stop the nonsense.”
Responded Vitter: “It sort of reminds me of the famous line, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”‘
If the bill’s supporters won important battles in the first week of debate, they also surrendered quietly on some.
Democrats decided they could not oppose legislation to build 370 miles of fencing along the Mexican border. This plan was added to the bill on an overwhelming vote.
A proposal by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, to deny citizenship to immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors passed 99-0 after changes were made to ease Democrats’ concerns.
Proponents did lose two significant battles. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., succeed in reducing the size of the guest workers program to 200,000 a year. Democrats broke ranks, succumbing to pressure from unions; business groups may yet seek a change.
After another defeat, the coalition rallied overnight.
Cornyn succeeded Wednesday on a vote of 50-48 in stripping out a provision that would allow longer-term guest workers to apply on their own for citizenship. The decision was effectively reversed the following morning on a vote of 56-43.